Short sentences

Press Release

8 June 2011

Prison easier than community sentences, say prisoners

The Howard League for Penal Reform, in collaboration with the Prison Governors’ Association (PGA), is today (8 June) publishing the results of the first research commissioned into the daily reality of those serving short prison sentences and those working with them. 

The research is set to influence forthcoming legislation at a time of intense public debate on the value of short prison sentences.

A central finding of the research, No Winners: The reality of short term prison sentences, is that many prisoners preferred a short term prison sentence over a community sentence because it is easier to complete while others considered community sentences to be more of a punishment.

The research revealed two distinct groups of prisoners: the first-timers and the revolving door prisoners.  The research identified clearly distinct attitudes and responses to imprisonment as well as differential needs while in prison. 

Four overarching findings from the research were:

  • Prisoners were keen to complete courses (for example anger management, enhanced thinking skills and offending behaviour) but reported that they were not available. Prisoners expressed frustration at this on the basis that they left prison the same as they were when they came in
  • Serving a number of short prison sentences may reduce the ability of prisoners to take responsibility and leads them to believe that reoffending and a return to prison are inevitable
  • The majority of prisoners reported the day-today reality of serving a short prison sentence to be boring, leading to disillusionment and demotivation
  • Many staff were upset at the damaging impact that short prison sentences could have on prisoners’ lives, especially where men had lost their homes, their jobs and it had led to family breakdown

It was evident that the revolving door prisoners often had little to look forward to on their release from prison. It was apparent that for some men their quality of life was better in prison than it was in the community.  Prisoners said that they engaged with few activities and spent most of the time in their cell.


The Howard League and Prison Governors Association is meeting today (8 June) with members of the House of Commons Justice Select Committee to present the research.

The authoritative research was conducted for the Howard League and PGA by Dr Julie Trebilcock, Imperial College, London.  She worked with a team of retired prison governors in three adult male prisons holding prisoners serving short prison sentences of 12 months and under.  Interviews were conducted with 44 prisoners and 25 prison staff.  This primary research was supported by an extensive online survey of PGA members and other key stakeholders.

Director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, Frances Crook, said: “Community sentences seek to challenge and change people so that they live crime free lives. By contrast, our overcrowded prisons fail to offer lasting solutions to crime or support for victims. Spending all day lounging on a cell bunk, particularly for those on short sentences, is the real ‘soft’ option. Community programmes can achieve many more positive outcomes than prison as they force people to understand the impact of their actions and do something to repair the damage caused by crime.”

“We are failing victims, taxpayers and the whole community when people opt to go to prison for a short time as an easier option than facing up to their crimes in the community.  The challenge is to develop community sentences that are imposed immediately, carried out intensively and help to change lives.  The many schemes round the country that have won awards from the Howard League for delivering effective and successful community sentences show it is possible to have safer communities, less crime and fewer people in prison.”

Eoin McLennan-Murray, PGA President, said: “Prison Governors have known for a long time that short sentences are expensive to administer and have the poorest outcomes in terms of re-offending rates. This research not only highlights that dimension but adds to our collective knowledge by adding the views and opinions of prisoners themselves as well as other stake holders. The net product is a convincing case which argues at best for the abolition of short prison sentences and at worst for a dramatic reduction in their use.”

Julie Trebilcock of Imperial College London, lead researcher on the project, said: “The survey responses of both prisoners and prison staff highlight how damaging short prison sentences can be. Many prisoners regard their return to prison as inevitable on the basis that they leave prison ‘just the same’, or even more disadvantaged, than they were on arrival. The current use of short prison sentences offers no winners: neither prisoners or staff are being equipped with the necessary support and interventions to help break the cycle of reoffending, while communities are having to cope with the frustration and disillusionment that is generated by the consistently high reoffending rates of this population.”

Note to editors

Sophie Willett           020 7241 7866         

Andrew Neilson       020 7241 7868                  07918 681 094 (out of hours)

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In October 2010 a Howard League and PGA survey of prison governors revealed that:

•          81 per cent of all respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement ‘short prison sentences serve to reform and rehabilitate the offender’, with only six per cent of governors agreeing or strongly agreeing

•          59 per cent of all respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed when asked if short prison sentences serve to reduce crime (including by deterrence)

•          Three quarters of all respondents (75.8 per cent) reported that they considered the current use of short prison sentences between zero and six months to be ‘excessive’

Prisoners serving less than six months in prison made up about 40 per cent of the total entries into prison in 2009. Last year 50,442 people were jailed for six months or less. In the year 08-09 the cost to the Ministry of Justice of looking after short sentenced prisoners, excluding their education and healthcare needs, was £286 million.

Such short sentences allow little time for rehabilitation. Research shows that at least 61 per cent of those serving sentences of less than 12 months are reconvicted within one year of release, whereas the same is true of only 37 per cent of those given community punishments